With the massive box office, critical and awards success of La La Land—which won six Oscars, though bested in the category of Best Picture—it’s interesting to see a resurgence of musically-driven storytelling in film and television. A producer, writer and director last on the festival circuit for Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan—which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival—Damon Cardasis was in New York last week for the premiere of his distinctive feature directorial debut, Saturday Church, which fuses music and fantasy in compelling fashion.
Starring Luka Kain as Ulysses, Saturday Church tells the story of a young boy growing up in the Bronx, struggling to come to terms with his gender identity. Ulysses goes on a journey of self-discovery throughout the film, using musical fantasies to escape his challenging reality, and making friends along the way, coming upon a community of safe individuals grappling with similar issues that will allow Ulysses to be whoever he wants to be.
“[The film] was inspired by a program at a church in the West Village of New York called Saint Luke in the Fields that has a Saturday church program that caters to a lot of LGBTQ youth from the city. Some are homeless, and I found out about this program through my mother, who’s a priest,” Cardasis explained, sitting down with his stars—including Kain, Indya Moore, Mj Rodriguez, and Marquis Rodriguez—at Deadline’s Tribeca Studio. “I started volunteering there, and I would go on Saturdays, and I’d feed the kids, and talk to them, and hear their stories. The program offered food and social services and legal advice, and also just a safe space to be themselves.”
Adjacent to the cafeteria in this facility was a gymnasium, where teens would “vogue and dance,” and through the addition of this performative element of song and dance—in addition to other interactions at the church—Cardasis found his fully realized idea.
Cardasis incorporated actual trans and LGBT actors into his piece in order to bring an authenticity to his film, casting the spotlight on real individuals whose lives run parallel to Ulysses’—a fact that the actors involved greatly appreciated. “I think it’s important, how this film makes Ulysses a person, and isn’t a tool for the film to do better—like a diversity kind of tool,” Kain said. “It really humanizes and brings to light the real struggles of someone struggling with gender identity.”
A transgender model making her feature debut in the role of Dijon, Indya Moore had similar feelings. “I was touched by the story of Ulysses. I feel like a lot of their experiences growing up with their identity, their journey of finding themselves, being sort of a disruption to the family structure and the home…I resonate to that kind of experience, your journey being so unique,” she said.
“I really appreciate my role for Dijon, because she provides a realistic narrative for someone who, although is struggling and going through what they have to go through to take care of themselves, considering their circumstances and what they have to do to survive—they were also someone who’s very loving and supporting to the main character, their younger counterpart,” the actress continued.
For Mj Rodriguez, what the community at the center of the film is about—and what the film tries to depict—is a “sense of family,” and the need for a sense of belonging among LGBTQ individuals. “I’m sure every single LGBTQ individual is longing for a sense of family, a sense of belonging. Ulysses confided in us with finding that sense they could not within their biological family,” Rodriguez said. “Even so, some of the characters made it the duty to go to the family, and show that they needed to show love. That happens in the world, that happens in reality, and I think that shed wonderful light on what needs to take place, and what needs to happen a little bit more within the world today.”
To view Deadline’s conversation with the Saturday Church stars and writer/director Damon Cardasis, click above.